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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Double Game, by Dan Fesperman (hardcover, $ 26.95)

Dan Fesperman has written several serious novels of international intrigue. His former life as a journalist gave him the credentials to open secret worlds to his readers. I emphasize the word "serious." His new work, The Double Game, is befuddling in its almost light-hearted homage to old-time spycraft and spy novels combined with a darker cat-and-mouse reunion of old antithetical forces. There are dead bodies and quotes from all the great spy novels rolling around in the same literary barrel.

Which trail should a reader follow? Homage or spy story?

The spy story is set in contemporary times but visits old Cold War haunts: Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Belfast. The purported game is for hapless amateur Bill Cage, who as a child visited or lived in all these cities with his diplomat father, to acquire mysterious documents on behalf of a (mysterious, of course) handler.

What will the documents accomplish? They probably have something to do with spy novelist and former spy, Edwin Lemaster. Cage is a former journalist whose career floundered shortly after indiscreetly quoting Lemaster about wondering what it would have been like to have been a double agent back in the day. Twenty years after the life-changing interview, Cage is bitter and at a crossroads with his own life. With the flimsiest of excuses, he plunges into his task of walking in Lemaster's spy shoes. With help from his still-healthy father and Litzi, his girlfriend when he was a teenager in Austria, Cage sallies forth.

There are elaborate messages sent on special paper stolen from Cage's home. Pages are ripped from collectible first editions of famous spy novels in order to provide incentive to Cage. Superfluous, silly, and diversionary.

So I pick homage.

What a joy to read references to all the great, or at least influential, spy novelists, especially those who wrote about the Cold War era. Fesperman is obviously a serious fan. He provides a bibliography at the end, and a reader could do way worse than to use this as a reading challenge. His spy story is interspersed with gossipy nuggets of information about real authors. Begin with The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903). In fact, The Double Game is a narrative bibliography of an extraordinary genre.

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